Fireworks Flight Gives Great Overview

I may have one of the oddest hobbies around. For the last few years, I have attempted to watch July 4th fireworks from a window seat of a commercial flight. It requires plenty of planning, certain lifestyle sacrifices, and more than a little bit of luck.

My first attempt failed because clouds curtained off any show from above. Last year, my flight landed too early. But last Saturday night was nearly perfect in execution. Although the exercise required nothing more strenuous than craning my neck, I felt deep satisfaction from having executed each step of my arduous plan.

Municipal firework displays usually begin around 9 p.m. and finish no later than 10. These times can vary depending on a town’s proximity to a time-zone boundary. Unlike so many things in modern life, the clock time matters less than the sky time. The summer sun sets in Toledo, Ohio, 35 minutes later than in Washington, DC., so fireworks begin later as you travel west within each time zone.

The first task is to find a flight that will take you over populated areas just after dark. You want a flight heading due west. Airliners travel around 500 miles per hour. Time zones across our latitudinal swath of the globe are roughly 750 miles across, so traveling west will slow the passage of clock time.

Finding a westbound flight that will be in the air at the right time wouldn’t have been too difficult, but I insisted on flying between two cities where I wanted to be in July — Baltimore and Chicago. The Baltimore airport was virtually empty last Saturday night. Dusk on July 4 is like Christmas morning. Wherever you were going, that’s the time when you hope you will already be there.

I booked my flight. I chose my window seat, not above the wing, on the right side of the plane, looking north. The next three variables were outside my control, so all I could do was hope.

If the flight was delayed for any reason, that could foil my plan. A child or a nervous talker in the seat beside me could force me to choose between my hobby and their attention. And then there was the biggest variable of all — weather. All three broke in my favor. The flight got out on time, the seat beside me was vacant, and the afternoon storm was blowing out to sea behind us as we were lifting off.

I counted about 150 different fireworks displays during our 90 minutes of flight, not including the block-by-block ruckus in South Bend, Indiana, as we made our approach into Chicago. South Bend, where fireworks are legal, looked like colored popcorn under glass from where I was sitting. Then everything went dark for a minute or two as we crossed the southern edge of Lake Michigan before Chicago presented my own private finale.

In case you’re tempted to take up this hobby, I should warn you that the displays themselves are not very impressive from an airliner’s cruising altitude. If you stand up straight, each display appears roughly the size of one of your toe nails — if they made polish that bursts and glows.

Gazing down over Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Toledo and towns in between, I marveled how each little village along the way was celebrating for themselves what the day means to them. None was necessarily aware of what others were doing, nor would it matter if they were. Like God answering prayers or Google performing searches, each expression was its own. But from above, the parts gathered into a surprisingly satisfying whole.

It certainly helped that it was a Saturday night, with few of the earthbound petitioners worried about the next morning. Police departments have to be careful not to show too heavy a hand these days, so the citizen displays may have been a bit more exuberant than in recent years.

An improving economy here and slowing growth in China gave Americans more bang for their buck — more work, more firework. Whatever their specific reasons, Americans felt like celebrating. Even from 30 thousand feet above, it showed.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs